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Majorca: Something in the air

Perched on a Majorcan mountainside, the vibrant village of Deià draws in all who pass through, be it artists in search of inspiration, celebrities seeking a boho-chic hideaway, or visitors looking to lose themselves in its sparkling waters and fragrant, winding trails

Majorca: Something in the air
Cala Deià with Ca’s Patro March in the foreground. Image: Diana Jarvis

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I’ve always been drawn to bohemian places; I’m a sucker for sunrise yoga sessions, harem pants and fire spinning on the beach. And having heard time and again that Deià — perched prettily on the edge of the Tramuntana Mountains — is Majorca’s hippy enclave, I wanted to see it for myself.

The adopted home of British poet and author Robert Graves, the town attracted a bunch of boho followers in the 1960s and ’70s, many of whom hung out in his villa. Musicians flocked here from London to soak up the sun-drenched living — just like their Californian counterparts — to a soundtrack of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors; Pink Floyd even recorded on neighbouring island Formentera. But it’s been 50 years since the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll of the Summer of Love — I knew most of the hippies would be gone, but would any of their spirit remain?

Deià sprawls across the terraced peaks of Majorca’s northwestern corner; the rugged hills inviting exploration. When you hike beyond the village, it’s not unusual to be the only soul in sight, save for the odd solitary figure selling blood oranges, and lemons the size of your fist.

The town itself sees far fewer tourists than neighbouring Valldemossa and Soller — there’s no room for visiting coachloads to park up. It’s a place of pleasure and respite. People come to soak up the sun on sultry afternoons amid the rock pools of Cala Deià; to potter around its artists’ studios on sleepy mornings; to witness the sunsets from Son Marroig; and to hole up in buzzing tapas restaurants amid the clinking of wine glasses.

But Deià is also famous for something else: being eye-wateringly expensive. Property prices have soared in recent years — due in no small part to the host of A-listers, including Brad Pitt and Michael Douglas, who’ve bought sprawling homes here. Recent celeb-spots include Kate Moss, while my home for this trip, Belmond La Residencia, has welcomed its fair share of famous faces. It’s also helped drive Deià’s reputation as an arty centre into the 21st century with events, painting classes and Sa Tafona, its acclaimed in-house gallery, which has exhibited hundreds of local and international artists. It’s no surprise the hotel’s walls are plastered with over 300 artworks, by the likes of Joan Miró, David Templeton and Arturo Rhodes.

It even has its own resident sculptor, Juan Waelder, and one morning I pay him a visit in his studio. I find him at the entrance, his arms outstretched as he greets me with a warm grin.

“Come in, come in,” he shouts, directing me to sit on a high stool besides his working table. The walls are lined with books, stacked haphazardly. There’s a large table, scattered with mini terracotta sculptures. I glance at the bronze creations propped around the room and begin to notice a common theme: nudity. “I love the female form,” he explains with gusto. And it looks as though he may have perfected it — the sculptures are astoundingly detailed and striking. Having quit his career in advertising to become a full-time sculptor, Chilean-born Juan was appointed as one of the hotel’s resident artists seven years ago. As well as commissioning pieces for the impressive sculpture garden, he also runs classes.

“Where are all the hippies?” I ask, in hope more than expectation. “There are no hippies, Helen.” Oh.

“OK, OK. So back in the 1970s, you’d find a few hanging out. They’d meditate in the mountains and lie about on the beach — they’d pretend to be artists. But if you want to be an artist, you have to work day and night. These so-called hippies weren’t artists, they’d just want people to think they were. It annoyed us real artists, who actually had to put the work in.

“But what you will find are plenty of artists and authors — like George Sheridan, like Graves. You should go to Sa Fonda. It’s pretty cool — lots of artists used to go there to party. It’s a good night, whoever you meet.”

Luckily, Sa Fonda — a bar, venue and all-round social hub — is already in my sights. That evening, I head there to meet my cousin, Fiona, who moved to Palma over 15 years ago. At the top of its steps I find a lady sitting alone on the terrace bar, her book and cigarettes strewn across the table. Close to her, I notice a man in dark sunglasses, who I mark down as an ageing rocker I just can’t place. I pick at a bowl of olives, watching the tables fill up as the light softens. A flash of light catches my eye and I spot a couple — woozy from too much sun and too many Aperol spritzes — taking pictures on their expensive-looking camera. Fiona arrives and orders a carafe of chilled white. “Deià attracts creative people,” she explains. “There’s a great artistic community for expats and locals. I was drawn to it by the Robert Graves connection, and my love of classic literature. I remember seeing British novelist Louis de Bernières talk here about his books. It appeals to a lot of interesting people who relish the peace, tranquillity, and freedom of such a beautiful place.”

Well, if this epicentre of peace and pleasure is good enough for Graves, Sheridan and er, Kate Moss, it’ll surely do nicely for me.

Robert Graves’ son William, who runs the Robert Graves House museum in Deià. Image: Diana Jarvis

Robert Graves’ son William, who runs the Robert Graves House museum in Deià. Image: Diana Jarvis

Jasmine & jojoba

The next day, I’m accompanied by Alfonso and Miguel, guides from local travel company Mills and Honey, on a 5.5-mile-hike from Deià to Port de Soller. We take one of the area’s numerous trekking routes and make our way through terraced hillsides, planted with olive groves and citrus orchards. In their expert hands, I’m soon able to tell my eucalyptus trees from my carob. As we walk further we pass solitary stone houses brightened up with bougainvillea, their garden gates fronted with honesty boxes and small tables strewn with lemons and avocados. 

The path starts to climb, and as we ascend we get sudden glimpses of the shifting blues of the Med between trees. It’s an undulating walk, and while the gentle breeze takes the edge off the heat, I’m glad when we arrive at Son Mico, a grand finca (country estate) with several rooms, not to mention cakes that taste as spectacular as they look. This out-of-the-way spot sits high in the hills above Port de Soller, and all around there are jaw-dropping views of terraced hillsides, pine forests, palms and a handful of neighbouring fincas, all no doubt worth a mint. We bag a table on the terrace and I take a large bite of almond cake.

From there, our journey continues through olive groves and along a route scented with citrus blossom, jasmine and jojoba, before our path eventually begins to dip steeply towards the sea. In all this time, the only person we pass is an old woman selling oranges, her face as lined as the cracked earth beneath my feet. Soon Port de Soller seems close enough to touch. The only sounds are the light wind, the shrill shriek of a bird high in the trees and my footsteps as I ease myself down the stony path.

We reach the shoreline, a yawning bay dotted with bobbing boats and a smattering of young couples and families huddled together. Small waves lick at the sand. A father drags a dinghy down to the water, chased by his excited young son, who plunges in without a care, while the breeze shimmies off the sea. It’s a pretty spot, here among the beach and the boats, although as I drink it all in I keep my back turned towards some of the shoreline’s uglier hotels.

A short while later, after waving off Alfonso and Miguel, I hop on the tram to neighbouring Soller, another of Majorca’s prettier places. The town famous for its orange and lemon groves is awash with grand modernist architecture and spectacular merchant houses. It buzzes with tapas restaurants, mini artisan boutiques and shops selling orange-themed souvenirs. I spend several hours padding about its winding narrow alleyways, and can’t resist popping into Can Prunera Museum of Modernism, which houses an impressive collection of Majorca-affiliated artists, plus permanent exhibitions of Picasso, Miró and Matisse. It’s a place where time can disappear quickly. 

But like Port de Soller, Soller is infuriatingly busy. It appears I’ve grown far too accustomed to the calm and tranquillity of Deià. So without thinking, I hail a cab back to my mountain hideaway.

Later that evening, on the recommendation of Juan the sculptor, I head to Xelini Restaurant — a dimly lit tapas bar dishing up Spanish classics. I settle on to a high stool in the bar area with a large barrel table and scroll down the extensive wine list as live jazz plays from a corner of the restaurant. The waitress points at the chalkboard of specials and I order a fabulous grilled dorado with sweet black rice, prawns and thick, lemony aioli. All around Xelini echoes with the chatter of locals and well-heeled-looking tourists — it’s the kind of place you could stay for hours, getting slowly merry over terrific local wines and flirtations with the jazz band.

Day by day, Deià works its magic. Each morning, I begin with a breakfast of ensaïmada (coil-shaped sweet pastry), yoghurt and honey, before taking coffee on the terrace. Some days, the clouds creeping in over the giant mountains are black and foreboding, covering the hillsides in a hazy cloak of mist and damp. On days such as these, it’s all too tempting to hang around the hotel, wallowing in the indoor pool, or poking my head into an artist’s studio. 

On sunny days, I head into the hillsides for solitary walks — and it’s during these forays I begin to understand what makes Deià so attractive to bohemians and artists. If it’s peace, calm and a refuge from reality you’re seeking, all you need to do is head five minutes out of town into the Tramuntana, with its citrus blossoms and perfumed pine forests. You’ll emerge restored and ready to paint, write, sculpt or, in my case, snooze.

Towards the end of my trip, I scramble downhill along the steep donkey path that runs from the centre of town to the Cala, where Robert Graves used to go to swim naked and party into the night. I, however, can see no evidence of partying as I pick my way across the pebbles. The high sun, reflected in the water, is dazzling and the crash of the waves fills the air with the salty seaside smell I adore. 

I spot an artist at work, her easel buried in the shingly ground, and make my way over to her for a chat. A native of Palma, she tells me she likes her beaches to have a touch of drama. “This cala is so different from the beaches around Palma,” she explains. “There they are smooth and sandy. Here it’s rougher, there’s real character to it.”

She tells me she’s a regular at the SOS Deià Art Centre — “it’s where I can meet other artists.” I also learn, too late, that visitors can sign up to workshops at this creative space, run by resident artist Sunna Wathen. Ah, well, maybe next time.

“Deià gives me inspiration,” she adds. “Maybe it’s something in the air, but I feel I paint better here.”

I leave her to it, and hobble over the pebbles to the stilted beachside restaurant, Ca’s Patro March, a location for recent BBC drama The Night Manager. Since the screening, suddenly everyone wants to take a seat at its rustic tables. It’s definitely a touch more shabby than chic, but you can spot bobbing boats beneath the moonlight while tucking into excellent seafood and fish dishes.

The hour is late and the tables are filling up. The chatter of diners is slowly getting louder; people are sipping on chilled wines; children are orbiting tables. I came to Deià seeking hippies, and instead found artists. As I sit, I reflect that what makes this gorgeous, tiny town so appealing to me is the feeling of reverie that floods your mind as soon as you arrive on the twisting mountain road — a feeling available to anyone.

I finish my grilled swordfish and leave my seat, and as I descend the steps the lapping of waves comes gradually into earshot. With a quick glance up at the wide grin of the moon, I pull on my jacket and slip into the night.


Getting there & around
Ryanair, Thomson Airways, EasyJet, British Airways, Jet2, Thomas Cook Airlines, Monarch Airlines, Flybe and Aer Lingus all fly direct from regional airports across the UK.
Average flight time: 2h 20m.
A hire car is a good option, although there are regular buses across the region (the 210 links Palma and Deià for under €3/£2.70), while the train ride between Soller to Palma has stunning views. Deià can be covered on foot in under 15 minutes, but it’s worth hiring a guide for walks into the surrounding hillsides. Taxis are also cheap and easy to book from your hotel.

When to go
Spring and autumn are best; summer can be stifling, especially if you plan
on walking.
How to do it
Mills and Honey offers a guided walk from Deià to Port de Soller from €250 (£227), including transfers. It also offers three nights B&B at Belmond La Residencia, including bike rental, guides and transfers, from £2,490 per person.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)